With Thanksgiving only days away, many people are finding reasons to be thankful. I’m sure most of you have seen or participated in the social media “thankful” blitzes, listing a different blessing every day for the entire month of November.
Some people will feel inspired and uplifted by all the positivity on their newsfeeds. Others will be…well, annoyed. Resentful. Spiteful.
And I know that, because I used to fall in that latter category.
Just a few years ago, I found it difficult to find a reason to be thankful. I had this life plan that I had created and carefully followed. I was proud of where I was and what I had become. And then, without so much as a warning, that life that I had worked years to create was ripped to shreds in mere moments. To make a long story short, I suddenly found myself a single mom to my infant son.
I was terrified. A single mom? Being a teacher, I knew all the statistics and the stereotypes that came with single-parent families. (I just want to pause right here to say THANK YOU, GOD for the opportunity to be a single mommy for those years and for correcting that ugly, judgmental voice inside of me regarding that subject. God can turn single parents into ROCK STARS and I firmly believe that, in many ways, their children gain something by watching their mother or father work so hard to provide for them.)
Anyway, Thanksgiving rolled around that year just like it always does – with the ink barely dry on my divorce papers – and there came the “Today I am thankful for…” posts. I scrolled through my newsfeed, rolling my eyes at most of them, especially the “Today I am thankful for my amazing, wonderful, faithful, loving husband” ones.
I tried to talk to God about it. I knew it wasn’t right to harbor so much bitterness. When I held my son in my arms – the person I loved more than I ever knew was humanly possible – I knew my heart should be filled with gratitude. But it wasn’t. I couldn’t push past the anger, the pain, and I let it consume my soul. I asked God to help me fix it, but my words felt empty. In truth, I felt anger toward Him, too. How did He let this happen to me?
I heard a story during that dark time. One of the old hymns we sang at church, “It Is Well With My Soul,” was written by a guy named Horatio Spafford. If you’ve already heard the story of why he wrote the song, you can skip this paragraph. But in case you haven’t, I’ll give you a brief background. Spafford was thriving. He was a faithful Christian, a successful lawyer and loving husband, and father to five children. They had a nice home and he traveled in important social circles. But while he was on top of his game, he lost his son. Almost immediately after, the Great Chicago Fire claimed many of his real estate investments. Just a couple of years later, when his wife and four remaining daughters were on a boat for Europe (where he was scheduled to join them later), the ship wrecked. Not one of his daughters survived.
On his way to meet his wife in England, he wrote the words to “It Is Well With My Soul.” Knowing that story makes the first verse so powerful: “When peace like a river attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, It is well with my soul.”
I remember hearing that story and thinking, Wow. My troubles are NOTHING compared to what this guy went through, and look at the attitude he chose. But even that wasn’t enough to change my own heart; an evil little voice inside argued and said, He obviously didn’t care about his family much to be able to say “It is well with my soul” even after losing his children.
I let myself spiral further and further down, and when I decided enough was enough, I didn’t even know how to pull myself up. I turned to the Bible and found a passage that said, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). I read that passage over and over and finally understood what that Spafford guy was doing. In EVERYTHING give thanks…not when everything is PERFECT. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his family; I’m confident he was devastated by his loss. But He knew that no matter what, God was good and still deserved his praise and thanks.
I knew that my self-absorption was keeping me from feeling any real gratitude for the blessings in my life. I blamed that one negative event for all my problems, using it as justification for the life of sin I had created. But when I repented and asked God to help me fix it, He showed me something else, too…
Even before my world had flipped upside-down, I hadn’t truly been filled with gratitude. Sure, I thanked God most nights for all my blessings, but there’s a difference between saying ‘thank you’ and truly being filled with thankfulness. I thought I had the whole “happiness” thing figured out, but looking back at the life I lived, I never really relied on God through any of it. I kind of did my own thing, without really consulting Him in any of the decisions I made. He was invited to come along (well, most of the time, anyway…unless I was doing something I knew He wouldn’t approve of, in which case I left Him out of it completely). So when things went well, I patted myself on the back before I even remembered to thank Him.
Only when I finally asked Jesus to come into my life the right way – at the center of it, where He belongs – did I learn what gratitude really meant. Because with Him at the center, I finally see Him in all things and can truly trust Him. I see the work that He is doing and how much He carries me each day, how He was there even through the greatest life trial I have faced so far. When He is in the center, I don’t have room for that negative, cynical, angry me that used to be there, the one who couldn’t see past my own problems to see all the good things – big and small. Who was I to be angry with God? He never promised me constant sunny skies…He promised to be there with me through the rain.
And amazingly, the anger that I felt over what I had gone through turned into gratitude…God not only brought me through it, He changed me and molded me into more of the person He wants me to be. I know I still have a lot of work to do, but day by day, I’m learning and growing and asking God for opportunities to become His child – no matter how challenging or difficult those opportunities may be.
Today, when I ask Him to lead and guide me and truly see Him working in my life, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for His love and mercy and forgiveness. And as far as the trials I have faced in the past and face today and will face in the future… it is well with my soul.